How lucky can a girl get? I was on my way to start my first train trip – a week-long train journey across the north of Spain – and had the added bonus of being able to spend two days in Madrid first. Madrid has always been one of my favorite cities in Europe. And eating anywhere in Spain has become one of my favorite passions. Besides, it would be very easy by either taxi (30 euro fixed rate) or metro to get back to the Madrid airport to fly to Bilbao in the Basque country to meet the Renfe “tourist train.”
Here are some highlights and suggestions on where to eat, stay and shop. And how to spend two days in this beautiful and wonderfully interesting city composed of neighborhoods ranging from elegant to busy to hip.
Since I was heading to the Basque Country in a couple of days, it seemed totally appropriate to eat at ETXEKO, a recent addition to the family of restaurants operated by the celebrated chef, Martín Berasategui, who is one of the Basque Country’s biggest culinary star having earned ten Michelin stars. ETXEKO is a Basque word meaning “made at home.”
Lunch doesn’t get any better than this. It is high cuisine. Each small bite was a miniature wonder and looked like a gorgeous piece of art on the plate. I had the 9 course tasting menu for 95 euros that I soon described as one of the best meals of my life. Even the three butters were exquisite –a classic, a spinach, and a mushroom butter. I began with caramelized strudel of smoked eel with foie gras, green onion and green apple. That was followed by an oyster from Asturias with cucumber and a delectable, light coconut sauce. Even the menu reads like art. There was a fabulous sea bass sealed in a barnacle marinara with a crunchy truffled egg yolk and asparagus extract. And a roasted pigeon with a roll of fresh pasta covered with mushrooms, chives and truffle cream. It was the first time I ever had pigeon and it was amazing tasting like a tender steak or breast of duck.
Wines – red, white and rose – from all across Spain accompanied each course. The tasting menu also includes three desserts beginning with a wonderful cold basil essence with lime sorbet, juniper slush and almond touches. The only traditional item were the classic tejas de almendra (almond crisps) served with coffee.
ETXEKO is an elegant restaurant with beautiful lighting and a glass domed cupola in the middle that allows natural light to enter. It is housed inside the new, hip Bless Hotel on Calle Velázquez, 62. The lobby is fun with a bar, intimate cozy seating areas and lots of art on the walls. There is a gym and a rooftop terrace and swimming pool (great for the summer in Madrid) with gorgeous city views. And a chic bowling alley downstairs – just in case you get bored in Madrid, which seems like impossibility! There is also a branch of Tacha, a spa and beauty treatment center where Renata gave me an amazing massage that fixed whatever ailed me.
The Bless hotel is located in a shopping paradise in the exclusive residential area of Salamanca, a neighborhood just north of the Prado Museum. mIt is one of the most upscale areas in the city with many narrow streets that are home to tons of designer boutiques. A branch of the famous El Corte Ingles, the largest department store in Spain, is on Calle Serrano, one of the broad boulevards and main streets in Salamanca. For Zara addicts, there are two – the clothing store and the home store.
Madrid is easy to navigate. The metro is very clean and user-friendly. Just follow the map. The Malasaña neighborhood is a hip, happening area filled with coffee houses, lively bars, cultural venues and clothing stores. In walking distance is the trendy Chueca neighborhood with the famous Calle Hortaleza, a street filled with shoe stores that offer discounts on numerous brands. People looking for shoes move from one store to the next and if you’re a size 37 (the sample size), you’re really in luck.
For a quick and nearby shopping pick-me-up, try La Duquesita, a pastry and coffee institution that has been around since 1914 on Calle Fernando VI in the fashionable Las Salesas district. They offer a wide variety of cakes and pastries including the old popular buñuelos, lightly fried fritters with a variety of fillings.
For dinner, I chose the reasonably-priced La Cabra in the stately Chamberí neighborhood. The restaurant recently changed their concept to small plates and tapas from a tasting menu. They seemed to specialize in creating unusual twists on a traditional dish. The cold garlic and pistachio soup with bits of smoked eel was superb. I followed it with an inversed fried calamari sandwich, “al inverso,” that had lines of squid wrapped around the outside of the small baguette and nicely decorated with edible flowers. I also tried the glazed Iberian pork cheek and a wonderful roasted mackerel in a delicious miso sauce. Dessert included a chocolate sphere with an apricot center topped with bits of almonds and cinnamon ice cream. For drinks, I began with a house specialty – an unusual gin cocktail frothed with a combination of lime, fresh apple juice, basil and egg white. Along the way, I had a glass (okay, maybe two) of an Albamar Albarino, a delicious white wine from Galicia.
For more of a “scene” with crowds and people watching, there are the popular and more expensive options El Paraguas and Ten Ten in the Salamanca district. While they tend to be very crowded, they both offer bar seating with the same menu – a nice option if you can’t get a reservation. At the El Paraguas bar, I can recommend the sea urchin croquettes that melt in your mouth and the squid in its own ink, a traditional Spanish dish. If you don’t mind long lines and waits, not too far away on the rooftop of the Corte Ingles department store on Calle Serrano is Street XO which is considered a gift from the three star Michelin chef, David Muñoz. It is a casual, theatrical spot with gourmet offerings that is drawing a lot of attention and crowds. On a weekend night, get there early! They don’t accept reservations.
June Massell is a New York based journalist and strategic communications specialist. She was a four-time Emmy award winning national television news correspondent, investigative reporter and news & documentary producer. She reported for The Newshour on PBS, for ABC Network News (Nightline, World News Tonight, Good Morning America), and NBC in New York and Chicago. She also produced for the news and documentary divisions of CBS and NBC Network News and worked on 60 Minutes. She has a strategic communications consulting practice and helps institutions “tell their story”. With a passion for travel, story telling, and food, June is a freelance travel writer who has told stories from destinations all around the world.